Sir Alan Parker, film director, writer and producer

Born: February 14, 1944

Died: July 31, 2020.

IN 1995 Alan Parker brought out his latest film, The Road to Wellville, with Anthony Hopkins in the lead role. It was, Film ‘95 presenter Barry Norman put it to him in an interview, a “deeply scatalogical comedy .... very unlike the stuff you’ve done before. So what made you choose it?”

“I try to do different things each time”, Parker responded. “I had done a number of serious films in a row and then I did The Commitments, which I rather enjoyed doing, because it was lighter and funnier. So I wanted to do something that was funny, and this is an outrageous comedy”.

Throughout his distinguished career Parker, who has died aged 76 after a long illness, worked effortlessly in several genres: thrillers, comedies, war dramas and musicals. He was also credited with helping to dismantle the barriers between the film industries in Britain and America.

His film debut, Bugsy Malone (1976) was an exuberant pastiche of gangster movies and musicals, with a cast made up of children, among them Jodie Foster. The film was, said the Radio Times critic, “the buttered toast of the Cannes film festival, and a flamboyant career was under way”.

Bugsy was followed by the harrowing, Oliver Stone-scripted, Midnight Express (1978), which starred Billy Hayes as a young American tourist consigned to the hell of a Turkish prison for a drug-smuggling offence. The film was a substantial hit, though it caused considerable offence in Turkey.

Equally controversial was Parker’s 1988 film Mississippi Burning, about an FBI investigation into the murder of three civil rights activists. It featured Willem Dafoe and an unforgettable performance by Gene Hackman. Parker admitted fictionalising some aspects of the story in order to reach “an entire generation who knows nothing of that historical event”.

Both Midnight Express and Mississippi Burning were nominated for multiple Oscars; six in the first case (it won best adapted screenplay and best original score) and seven in the second (it won best cinematography).

Both times, Parker was nominated for Best Director, but he lost out, first to Michael Cimino for The Deer Hunter then to Barry Levinson for Rain Man.

His other acclaimed films included the 1984 Vietnam war drama, Birdy; Angela’s Ashes, his 1999 adaptation of Frank McCourt’s bestselling memoir; Angel Heart (1987), with Robert de Niro as the devilish Louis Cyphre, and Fame (1980), about the American performing-arts academy.

He also made Pink Floyd - The Wall (1982), a vivid realisation of the multi-million-selling Pink Floyd album. The Commitments (1990) was the engaging story of a young working-class Irish soul band; and he “bullied” Madonna into taking the lead role in his 1996 big-screen adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice West End musical, Evita.

Perhaps his most personal film was Shoot the Moon (1982), a marital-breakdown film starring Diane Keaton and Albert Finney.

Actors and fellow directors have praised Parker as a master storyteller. Ben Stiller tweeted that he “was a great director who made what I consider to be ‘real’ movies”; director Edgar Wright said Parker’s “incredible” run of hits had been of immense inspiration to him. Matthew Modine, co-star of Birdy, said being cast in the film changed his life. David Puttnam said he “never ceased to be amazed” by Parker’s talent.

Alan Parker was born in Islington, London, in 1944. In later life he told the BBC’s Rosie Millard that he had been the first child from his estate to attend the local grammar school. Walking there on his first day he saw people at their windows, waving as he entered a new world. “It was a moment I have put into all my films”, he said.

Parker began his adult career as an advertising copywriter and graduated to writing and directing commercials before graduating to films. In 1974 he directed, for the BBC, Jack Rosenthal’s The Evacuees, which was rewarded with a Bafta award and an International Emmy.

Parker was one of a handful of people who directed commercials – others included Adrian Lyne, and Ridley and Tony Scott – and would go on to make their name in Hollywood.

Speaking in 2013, he said of pre-Bugsy Malone days: “I had no career path as such. It was very frustrating. There were only two places you could go: EMI at one end of Wardour Street and Rank at the other. If you didn’t get either of these to bite, it was no go. Bugsy was an exercise to do something American ... It’s lasted the test of time: it looks very modern”.

He had fond memories of the making of The Commitments, once recalling: “When I let the cast fly, they improvised like crazy, breaking the record for the most swearwords used in a film”.

Years later Johnny Murphy, one of the stars of the film, was doing a play in Cork. He was walking towards the theatre and had just passed the Post Office when “four guys with ski-masks rushed out with shotguns and lump hammers”, having just robbed the place. Murphy froze – then one of the villains, recognising him, tucked his shotgun under his arm and shook his hand, congratulating him on the film.

Parker was chairman of the British Film Institute and was founding chairman of the UK Film Council. He received the CBE in 1995 and was knighted in 2002. In 2013 he was presented with a lifetime Bafta award in 2013.

His 14 films won no fewer than ten Oscars, ten Golden Globes and 19 Baftas. His last film was 2003’s The Life of David Gale.

In his 2013 interview he said he had written many screenplays that had not been made. “But the truth is”, he added, “as I get older, the attraction of being up to my knees in Mississippi mud is growing less and less. Film-making is a physically hard job”. He had a son of eight, and “was never there” for his four grown-up children.

“That isn’t the kind of life I want any more. Having said that, I truly miss the camaraderie of the film set”.